By Eleni P. Austin
Lizzo is raw and unfiltered. She lets the expletives fly. She simply exudes confidence and body-positivity. She is also a ride-or-die feminist, who isn’t afraid to let her freak-flag fly. But none of this would make a bit of difference if she wasn’t a protean talent.
Lizzo (ne’ Melissa Jefferson), spent her childhood in Detroit before her family relocated to Houston, Texas. She grew up listening to Gospel, began taking flute lessons and played in her school’s marching band. She also formed her own Rap collective, The Cornrow Clique at age 14. Her nickname, Lizzo is an amalgam of ‘Lissa and Jay Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” song.
She continued studying music in college, but she was dealt a devastating blow at age 21 when her dad died. Hoping for a new beginning, she moved to Minneapolis and quickly made a name for herself, performing in the duo Lizzo & the Larva Ink, as well as the distaff Rap/R&B group, Chalice. Her independently released 2013 debut, Lizzobangers, garnered great reviews and a coterie of well-known admirers. Soon enough, she was on tour, opening for Har Mar Superstar and collaborating with Prince on his Plectrumelectrum album. Her second long-player, Big Grrrl, Small World arrived in 2015, rave reviews helped her secure a deal with the storied Atlantic label. She continued to expand her fanbase, opening for venerated indie rockers, Sleater-Kinney on their much-anticipated reunion tour.
Her Atlantic debut, 2016’s The Coconut Oil EP, leaned heavily on her Gospel roots. Following tours opening for Haim and Florence + the Machine, she took a turn on the runway for as a plus-size model for FIT’s Future Of Fashion show. 2019 saw the release of her first Atlantic long-player, Cuz I Love You. Critically and commercially successful, it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. By January of the following year, it went double platinum. She received a record-breaking eight Grammy nominations, making her that year’s most nominated artist. She took home three awards that night. She continued to be feted throughout the year, earning statuettes from The Billboard Awards, The Soul Train Awards and The BET Awards. 2021 saw the release of the single, “Rumors,” a collaboration with Cardi B. Now she’s returned with her fourth full-length effort, Special.
“The Sign” opens the album with the slyest salutation on record. Over burbling synths, Lizzo gleefully exclaims; “Hi, motherfucker, did you miss me? I’ve been home since 2020, I’ve been twerking and making smoothies, it’s called healing.” As she catches us up on pandemic activities and bad boyfriend proclivities, the instrumentation stretches out, adding knockabout percussion, stinging electric guitars, filigreed acoustic notes, boinging bass and shimery keys. Her conversational vibe, coupled with the infectious melody and arrangement, nearly camouflages this sharp declaration; “I keep writing these songs cause he keep doing me wrong, and my girls keep singing along… dealing with him put me through some shit yeah, but I can’t forget I’m still that bitch, yeah, I live inside his head and pay no rent yeah, it’s lit, yeah.” On the break, a guitar solo unleashes some Princely purple pyrotechnics. Plangent piano and a tick-tick-ticking time bomb beat ushers the song to a close.
Girl Power is a theme that threads through the record, that’s particularly true of three tracks. “Birthday Girl” gets the party started with a phalanx of propulsive horns and rippling electric piano before folding into and arrangement that includes hulking bass lines, and a clacky, slap-happy, click-track beat. The expansive chorus finds Lizzo offering up some distaff exultation; “I started from the bottom with my hoes, love y’all so fucking much, don’t mean to get emosh, you know me and Patron, when you been through the most, you gotta do the most, so take it to the head and touch your ta-ta-toes, yeah, bitch we ‘bout to ga-ga-go.” Before it gets too mushy, she reminds us that it’s okay to put boys on the back-burner; “Clap-clap-clap, do it with no hands, brand new wig, better change your plans, when we get together we don’t got no man, we don’t want no man, we don’t need no man, Hey, we can block these calls all day, we ain’t stalking nobody on a fake page, better make way, shit!” On the break, women weigh in with their birthday dates as Lizzo insistently asserts “every day is a birthday.” The song closes out with her raucously irresistible laugh.
The no-nonsense encomium “I Love You Bitch” stutters to life with some Chop-sticky piano chords on the first verse. She positively croons the second verse, as icy keys propel her through the chorus, locking into a chugging, synthesized groove. Then it’s time to get hella specific; “Yeah, you are the most specialist, not just that bitch, but you my bitch, you water all your plants and eat your veggies, I’m obsessed with it, I was at my lowest I was going through it, remember, remember/I said give me your heart no repo, takin’ me out, no cheat-code, give me your hoodie when I’m cold, bless your heart it’s too small, why don’t you try do a little slow dance, cause life goes way too fast.” As she repeats the title, billowy harp intertwines with tremulous piano, bringing the song to a close.
Then there’s Grrrls,” which faced a bit of controversy upon release when she referred to herself as “a spazz,” Disability advocates labelled it as an ableist slur, Lizzo immediately apologized, course-corrected on the fly, changing the lyrics to “don’t hold me back.” This up-in-the-club banger is powered by thundering bass lines and hiccupping percussion. The melodic throughline is lifted from “Girls” The Beastie Boys’ tongue-in-cheek homage to female pulchritude. Here, she flips the script, offering up an authentic ode to sisterhood; “Cause that’s my girl, we co-dependent, if she with it, then I’m with it, yeah, we tussle, mind your business, that’s my girl, we CEOs and dancing like a CE-Ho, we about to throw them bo’s, let’s fuck it up.” The song still makes time to mix it up; “Let me take these earrings off and hit the bougie rachet with my friends whoa-oh, I’m-a go Lorena Bobbitt on him so he never fuck again, no-oh, oh-oh, no, you can’t fuck again, bro’.”
A few cuts draft off a Soul/Pop Rock paradigm that originally emerged in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Take “About Damn Time,” which is something of a kissing cousin to Diana Ross’ epochal smash hit, “I’m Coming Out.” Serpentine guitars snake through an arrangement that includes popping, boogie-oogie-oogie bass lines, effervescent keys, bloopy synths and an insistent, 4×4 beat. Lizzo brings ‘da Noise and ‘da Funk from the jump, announcing “It’s bad bitch o ‘clock, it’s thick-thirty,” she cuts loose on the sanguine chorus; “Turn up the music, turn down the lights, I got a feelin’ I’m gon’ be alright, Okay, alright, it’s about damn time, turn up the music, let’s celebrate, I got a feelin’ I’m gon’ be okay, okay, alright, it’s about damn time.” On the break, cascading piano notes and spiraling guitars wash over wobbly vocoder and Lizzo’s flute. Suddenly, she leaps in with an emotional S.O.S.; “In a minute, I’ma need a sentimental man or woman to pump me up, Feelin’ fussy in my Balenci-ussies, tryna bring back the fabulous, cause I give a fuck way too much, I’ma need like two shots in my cup, wanna get up, wanna get down, mmm, that’s how I feel right now.”
From its numerical title, Roller-Rink organ and anthemic “I’m So Excited-ish” chorus, “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)’s” sound splits the difference between 1999-era Prince and The Pointer Sisters’ early ‘80s resurgence. Her tossed away, “sheesh,” at the top of the song, signals a measure of ambivalence regarding a new romance. Over jittery synths, angsty keys and a caffeinated beat she weighs her options; “I’m good with my friends, I don’t want a man, girl I’m in my bed, I’m way too fine to be alone, on the other hand, I know my worth, and now he callin’ me, why do I feel like this, what’s happenin’ to me?” Second-guessing herself; “How am I supposed to love someone else, when I don’t like myself, guess I better learn to like this, it might take my whole life just to do,” she quizzes her friends; “He call me Melly, he squeeze my belly, I’m too embarrassed to say I like it, Girl, is this my boo? That’s why I’m askin’ you, cause you know I’ve been through.”
Meanwhile, “Everybody’s Gay” is destined to become the party anthem of 2022. An intoxicating cocktail of fizzy Funk, Pop and Soul, it weds flirty horns, slap-back bass, vroom-y synclavier, sultry keys and spiky guitars to a four-on-the-floor Disco beat. Lyrics offer a panoply of pansexual delights; “There’s a Mona Lisa moanin’ in the room, tell a sexy nurse to meet me in the loo, sisters drinking bitches brew, the mister got a monster too, it’s getting freaky, do you want to leave the bar-hell no!” Elastic guitars, pulsating keys and squiggly synths paint the break in dayglo colors before Lizzo demurs; Freaky nights, crazy times, let’s play dress-up baby.” A squally guitar outro labels this one NC-17
The best songs here are equal parts brave, intimate and vulnerable. On “Naked” Lizzo puts her physique and her fragile emotions on full display. The track opens tentatively with some slippery Blues guitar and twinkly keys, as Melissa Jefferson quietly bares her soul; “Can I be discreet with you, will you keep my secrets, I just want to lay down and open up the deepness…all the conversations say I should feel a way, I don’t care what people think or spend or sway, we can run away, yeah (her voice trills thrillingly on that yeah)/Let down my guard, undo my robe, I’m standin’ here, don’t need no clothes.” Rattle-trap drums and syncopated horns bookend the tender chorus; “I’m naked, love how you look at me naked, come make this body feel sacred, I’m a big girl can you take it?” The melody echoes those Quiet Storm classics that the Philadelphia International crew so deftly produced back in the day, but she kicks it into the stratosphere with her body-positive imagery.
“Break Up Twice” finds Lizzo ready to take a second chance on love. The track is blends a clanky, mechanical beat, courtly Spanish guitars, feathery keys and thrumming bass. Once she acquiesces, promising “I’m willing to give it another try,” the arrangement shapeshifts, layering in strings, honeyed harmonies and chunky wah-wah guitar and her vocals pivot from diffident to jubilant.
Finally, the title-track emerges as the record’s ne plus ultra song. Percolating keys partner with grandiloquent strings and a baroque horn fanfare. Lizzo’s mien is both conversational and confessional as she unapologetically speaks her truth; “I’ve been the same since I’ve been driving slow on Bissonnet, call up anybody I knew and they would tell you that, fame is pretty new but I’ve been used to people judging me, that’s why I move the way I move and why I’m so in love with me.” The chorus, “In case nobody told you today, you’re special..” is a shout-out to anyone has ever felt rejected or marginalized. By the bridge, the song hits a Gosspel-inflected crescendo, as she genuflects to the gods of self-esteem
The final two songs, “If You Could Love Me” and “Coldplay,” feel like a cosmic exhale. The former is a mid-tempo ballad, fairly stripped-down to jangly guitars, willowy keys, angular bass and a ticklish beat. Lizzo’s brash self-confidence is momentarily sidelined when she truly feels loved for herself. Still, she’s compelled to lay down the law; “I accept the things that I can’t change about you, but can’t accept the fact that I can’t change myself too, wish I could fall in love with me so easily like you did, being good to me like I am someone else seems so back-handed/When the world can’t love me to my face, when the mirror lies and starts to break, hold me close don’t let me run away, don’t be afraid, cause if you love me, you love all of me, or none of me.” Gossamer strings are matched by buttery horns on the break. In someone else’s hands, say, Barbra Streisand, Adele or Jennifer Hudson, this is the kind of powerhouse declaration that screams “showstopper.” But Lizzo, cool and elegant, eloquently states her case, as a quiescent piano coda winds down the melody.
The latter weaves lyrics and melodic fillips from Coldplay’s first hit “Yellow,” into a colorful aural tapestry that simply crackles with romantic frisson. Anchored by Jazzy piano notes, ricocheting guitar riffs, boomerang bass and a click-clack beat. Lizzo’s melismatic vocals echo ‘70s antecedents like Natalie Cole and Minnie Ripperton (R.I.P. to both). Having finally let love in, her joy is palpable; “Going to sleep, holding hands at the sunrise, waking up, holding hands in the rain, I feel so goofy, I don’t really do this, but with you is healing how I feel pain/It made me sad, I cried, singing Coldplay in the night, dancing to no music just feels right with you, ooh, And I just know, that in this life, my love is you-and everything you do.” On the bridge, she locks into a sanctified call-and-response groove, and a creamy string section steers the song, and this brilliant album, to a lush and euphoric conclusion.
Ultimately, these are just words on a page. Essentially, you need to quit reading and listen to this record right now. Are you done, you want to listen again, don’t you? Go ahead, I get it. Special is truly so many things at once, dancefloor-ready, assertive, introspective, effervescent, flirty and funny. Across 12 songs, Lizzo takes you to the club and she takes you to church.